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The Neurotics Guide To Avoiding Enlightenment by Chris Niebauer, Ph.D. – Book Review
Deep thoughts about self and self-improvement…
Even a quick glance at the self-help shelves of any bookstore will quickly reveal that the industry is booming and that most of us seem to have a secret desire to “be a better person.” We are looking for that magic formula that will give us enlightenment, hopefully the sooner the better. But is enlightenment as we understand it really attainable? If we had a better life, what would it be? Would it be very different from our current lives? Moreover, what would happen if we discovered that the “I” we were so intent on fixing turned out not to actually exist, but a myth, an unreliable creation of our own brains? Can modern neuroscience shed light on this topic, and if so, do you have to be an expert to understand it? If you’re confused, get ready for Chris Niebauer’s thought-provoking book to challenge many of your ideas A Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left Brain Plays Endless Games of Self-Improvement.
Many self-help books are written from a New Age/Eastern mystic perspective, and Niebauer’s book fits into that category in a way. Niebauer has been heavily influenced by both the mid-20th century author Alan Watts and the contemporary writer Eckhart Tolle. Watts wrote about a variety of Eastern religions, including Zen, Hinduism, and Taoism, and Tolle was heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, to describe the book purely as such would be very misleading. Also to describe A Guide to Neurotics simply as a self-help book would be just as deceptive. There are certainly mind exercises and meditation techniques included that the reader may feel can help them achieve a new state of mind and give them a new approach to life, but this is largely a theory/philosophy book that focuses on our challenges. standard ideas about ourselves and our lives. Niebauer is indeed a “college professor specializing in cognitive neuropsychology” (Foreword), and the book has heavy neuroscientific content. In essence, Niebauer attempts to give Eastern mysticism a neuroscience framework, taking it from the world of pure ideas and giving it a solid scientific background.
As the reader may guess at this point, this is not quite a beginner’s book. Some understanding of both Eastern mysticism and psychology would be helpful. Niebauer’s ideas are unusual and very challenging and require quite a bit of thought. For example, the first chapter may be difficult to understand, but Niebauer’s ideas are easier to appreciate if you stick with the book and keep reading. In the end, you may not agree with everything Niebauer has to say, but you’ve certainly been forced to rethink a lot of what you believe about yourself and the world.
Despite the emphasis on theory, the book does not use technical terms or provide long, in-depth scientific discussions. There are illustrative examples from the real life of both Niebauer and his family. These examples help make the text more personal and easier for the average reader to relate to.
As the subtitle suggests, this book has a lot to do with the left brain. It is the hemisphere that is dominant, that is, the one that is most important in our thinking. It looks for patterns and sees the world in terms of categories. It divides the world into nouns, which are stable “things”. All of this is good, except that much of the world is a process, which means that things change, and often change significantly. So we tend to think of ourselves as a permanent “image”. We tell stories about our history that illustrate ‘who we are’, when in reality we are a changing entity. This idea is very consistent with narrative psychology (Dan P. McAdams. The stories we live by: Personal myths and the creation of the self:__ New York: The Guilford Press, c1993). To take another example, we tend to see enlightenment as a “thing” that can be achieved, a permanent state in which our old self ends and the new self comes. This means that we see enlightenment as the end of one stable thing and the beginning of another. As Niebauer points out, our left brain never stops working, even as we become much more aware of our right brain, of process-oriented, expanded awareness, so enlightenment is a constant process of change, of seeing the world in a new way.
A large part of the book focuses on the discovery that in the absence of solid data, the left brain confabulates, that is, it invents perfectly reasonable-sounding, but at the same time untrue, explanations for why the world appears as it is. It’s when we have little information that we see “patterns” that don’t exist, at least not in the way we think they do. This discovery comes from split-brain patients. These are people who usually have severe epileptic seizures. The Corpus Callosum allows the left and right hemispheres to communicate. It doesn’t take much to recall an occasion when we have ‘jumped to conclusions’. At the time we are sure of our ideas, but later we start to doubt because we find information in other ways or we see that we don’t really have evidence. The upshot of these findings, of course, is that we should be a lot less sure of ourselves. This idea is proposed by Alan W. Watts in his book The wisdom of uncertainty (New York: Vintage Books, c1951).
Niebauer proposes two main solutions to our life problems. The first is that we are aware of life by observing ourselves and the things that happen to us from a distance. This allows us to really observe rather than jump to conclusions. It also allows us to distance ourselves from the emotional drama of our lives. We observe “I am upset,” but with the act of longer observation we are one step away from our uneasiness. Of course, this is called mindfulness in Buddhism. Niebauer’s second solution is to approach life with a playful attitude. We take ourselves less seriously and don’t know for sure what our left brain wants to assure us. Once again we are away from the drama of life.
Of course, the three paragraphs above only touch on the topics discussed in Niebauer’s book, which range from the concrete and real things you can do about anxiety to the vast and esoteric such as what part of the self survives death. Although the book is not long, there is a lot in it, and the reader may prefer to read only one chapter a day in order to pay enough attention to the author.
One point of criticism is that all of Niebauer’s evidence comes from brain-damaged patients and optical illusions. These are not situations where the “normal” aspects of life apply. It makes us wonder how many of these circumstances occur in “normal” life. It’s not that we doubt what Niebauers said, but we wonder how often the circumstances occur. For example, how often do we jump to conclusions? Niebauer would like us to do it often, but is it so. A little more evidence of this would be useful. But even if we disagree on the frequency, Niebauer’s book is certainly an eye-opener.
A Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment is definitely a book that will challenge most readers and give them a lot to think about. We all tend to be pretty sure we know ourselves and understand the world, but Chris Niebauer sure makes us wonder how much we really do. Niebauer doubts that we can ever fully escape ourselves and become “enlightened” as we wish, but he believes that we can be more aware. If you’re interested in Eastern philosophy, you’ll definitely find this book different than most you own on the subject. If you are interested in learning more about how the brain works, this volume will also interest you. I am happy to rate this book four out of five stars.
McAdams, Dan P. The stories we live by: Personal myths and the creation of the self:__ New York, New York: The Guilford Press, c1993.
Niebauer, Chris. A Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left Brain Plays Endless Games of Self-Improvement:__ Denver, Colorado: Outkiris Press, c2014.
Watts, Alan W. The wisdom of uncertainty:__ New York, New York: Vintage Books, c1951.
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